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How to Click With Those Who See Voting as So Last Century

March 10, 2004|Catherine Getches | Catherine Getches, 27, lives in Santa Rosa.

It was Super Tuesday when I realized that the Urban Outfitters' tee that had at first annoyed me was actually true. "Only Old People Vote," the shirt declared in my generation's ironically detached way. It was true -- voting made me feel more of a nonmember than a participant in the political process. I cast my ballot in one of the area's oldest elementary schools, where I signed in with an election volunteer wielding a magnifying glass. And when she had trouble finding my name she joked about alphabet amnesia, having "learned the ABCs so darn long ago." I took a ballot from a man sipping from a can of Ensure, and I was handed a dried-up Sharpie by a silver-haired woman who kept the cap as insurance on its return.

I wondered if the word "primary" was a nod to the primitive voting system and if these three attendants were at this pioneering polling place when it all began. I pictured my paper ballot racing to the counting location via Pony Express in time for that night's results. And for the first time, I wished life was more as it was on "American Idol." If vast numbers of people can be motivated to vote for contestants who are simply interested in being heard, why is it so hard to get people to act in behalf of candidates who have a message?

If I can transfer money via phone, publish photos straight from my cellphone to the Web and instant-message a vote along with millions of others to elect an Idol, why can't there be a safe and modern system in place for selecting the country's leaders? And why do we think the current system is so safe? At my polling place, no ID was required, just knowledge of my name. My privacy was subject to the voice level of the attendants, and the cereal box-like contraption that was to conceal votes from wandering eyes was hardly fool- or snoop-proof.

When my mom was my age, she voted in every election. At 27, she was loosening up to rock and roll, but she was also firmly against the Vietnam War and active in protests. There was incentive to vote, she says, because men between 18 and 26 could be drafted. These days, "sit-ins" don't really register, but look at how many of us can come together for no reason. We meet up in moblogs, our potent expression of cellphone solidarity.

With the click of a mouse, thousands of people can tune in to our online tirades, where we can expound on everything from our fears to the consistency of our last caffe latte.

Perhaps we do need something like the plan by state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) to give 14-to-17-year-olds in California a fraction of a vote. With less than 4% of the people between the ages of 18 and 29 voting in the last election, it's clear that young people are not being reached in their medium. My mom often asks: "Doesn't anybody your age care? Are you all so complacent?" And I counter with what I hear so often: "What's the point? Where's the incentive?"

In 1990, a few years before I first voted, Rock the Vote seemed pretty cool. But these days, out-of-date RTV artists like Donny Osmond just aren't pumping me up for the polls. Today, when I stand in line for a Rock the Vote concert, all I see is the disconnect between the clipboard-armed Rock the Vote Street Team outside and the ear-ringing levels of music inside.

The same thing is true of efforts like the competition that asked teams of teenagers from across the country to devise strategies for presidential candidates to reach the youth vote. One team came up with handing out condoms and hairbrushes emblazoned with "Kerry Cares." Another group created an ad showing the Bush tax cuts paying for DVD players and Members Only jackets. The competition's sponsor called it "on target" to have "the president embrace the bling-bling lifestyle."

Wouldn't the money be better spent on electrifying the voting process instead of trying to prop up the political process with current fads?

If voting were less of a cross between the SAT and going to the DMV and more like taking an online survey, it might be more appealing. This year is already a testament to the power of political Web logs and other Internet enterprises.

Just look at the assertion on Rock the Vote's website: "16% of Americans who vote are under 30. That's enough to sway an election or two."

It seems that all we need is a medium that meets us on our terms. If the click of a mouse can charm us to a chat room where even Howard Dean's scream won't scare us away, then why does getting involved in the political process feel like being handed an eight-track when you're used to your iPod?

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